Colin Newman (Wire) :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

2018 looks to be a banner year for fans of the defiantly minimal Wire. Following 2017’s Silver/Lead, a record that marked the band’s 40th anniversary in the most inspiring way possible — by demonstrating its continued vitality — Pink Flag Records has readied a wealth of archival releases for this year. First up, the Nine Sevens box set, collecting nine 7″ singles recorded between 1977-1980, which hits record stores on April 21, Record Store Day.  And then, May 18th will see the release of expanded, deluxe editions of the quartet’s first three albums, Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and 154 (1979). Documenting the group’s initial creative burst, the reissues are designed as definitive editions.

“If you’re going for completeness, you’ve got to be complete,” says Wire leader Colin Newman via Skype.

Presented with remastered audio, demos, B-sides, alternate takes, unreleased material, an 80-page book, and a wealth of photos by photographer Annette Green, who shot the legendary Pink Flag  and Chairs Missing album covers as well,  the expanded editions are the result of Newman and his small team of collaborators raiding the EMI archives, creating combination reissue/contextual art project. While the core albums  will continue to be available via streaming outlets, the significant trove of bonus material will remain exclusive to these physical box sets.

Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Newman to explore the band’s enduring legacy while he and the group prep for a trip to Marfa, Texas, to play the Marfa Myths  April 12-15 festival alongside Amen Dunes, Suzanne Ciani, Terry Allen, and many more. Sustaining his foundational artistic stance for more than four decades, Newman remains a sharp, funny presence.

Aquarium Drunkard:  You’ve never been a backward-looking band. Wire has always charged forward. What has the process of re-evaluating your work like this felt like?

Colin Newman: It does your head in. [Laughs] Not to put too fine a point on it. It’s a very strange, slightly surreal experience. I think we’ve always very much lived in the present. It’s about what’s going on right now with the band and always has been. In that respect, it isn’t any different than how it was in 1977. But on the other side, it was a different combination of people [founding guitarist Bruce Gilbert departed in 2006] and that’s something I’m very aware of when dealing with material from that time. You know, like any group of people, each person has their own thing to bring to the mix.

AD: Right. Wire was a particular combination of personalities in those early days.

Colin Newman: I have a theory about humanity. It’s to do with the practical need for diversity. Human beings come in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Between us, we’re somehow working toward a collective consciousness, which has to do with how we communicate with each other. We have individual strengths and weaknesses; no two people are the same. As a race, we face increasingly complex problems of our own, and not of our own, making. The solution to those problems is not only found within the realms of thinking of white, middle-aged men from the west, do you know what I mean?

Within that argument is: when you have a group of people working together on a venture, the actual makeup of the people, whatever the core philosophy is, will influence how it turns out. So while it is absolutely true that Wire has always maintained the same core philosophy — and a lot about Wire hasn’t changed since the ’70s — the fact that there is one person different is an influence. That’s a quarter.

AD: What has putting these new editions together taught you about the band in those days? Do you hear things differently?

Colin Newman: I don’t think necessarily think I hear anything different. The band always had an attitude. Basically, everything is included in the special editions. There’s a storage place in Hayes, in Middlesex, west of London, which is where EMI always used to keep their archive. All the masters. Everything, from everything on their label. And not only is that storage facility still there, but the Wire items are still on the same shelf. There’s a shelf marked “Wire” and what’s in the special editions is everything on that shelf that’s mixed in two-track.

AD: More than 40 years ago, did you have any inkling at all you’d still be making art in 2018? Not music or playing with Wire per se, but just marking art of some kind?

Colin Newman: I’m not sure I even imagined I’d be alive, which is of course ridiculous. [But] I had some ideas in my head in my late teens about the future. I come from a working-class background, but I was the first person on both sides of the family that went into higher education. I felt very strongly I wasn’t really interested in working at a regular job — I didn’t want to work at the factory or something like that. I knew [my] future wasn’t manufacturing, it was something more nebulous. Arts was something I was drawn to…I’d say yeah, that was really all I wanted to do and cared about. I might have had a rude awakening at some point around 25 if I hadn’t gotten anywhere and ended up having to get a job, or be like a lot of people and get a job they don’t really care about to have the money to do the art they want to do…

AD: I ask because while Wire shared traits with punk bands — you played fast, loud, and hard — but there always seemed to be a conceptual element to Wire. It seems like the work of serious-minded, thoughtful people who might be making art into their 60s.

Colin Newman: I think there’s a lot of sense in what you say [though] Wire has never regarded [itself] as being a punk band. “Punk” was pretty much like five minutes in 1976. Not a lot of lasting value. Wire is a ’77 band really: punk was kind of over by the time we really got going. It was already in the national newspapers and had its big stars. Even right from the beginning…the [The Roxy London WC2]  album, “12xu” was on it, but also “Lowdown,” which wasn’t fast. We were already kind of diverging from the template. I wasn’t really interested in “rock” music. That’s my roots as a writer. I’ve always found rock music a bit tedious.

AD: What kind of music were you interested in?

Colin Newman: I was lucky enough to grow up in the ’60s. We had very limited radio, but we did have music from America, but both black and white American music [and] music from Jamaica. That was the combination I grew up on, everything from folk to ska, the original form of ska. “My Boy Lollypop,” that’s what we grew up on. It was a great backdrop. I wasn’t interested in the idea of rock & roll because it was ’50s music. It seemed old…not very exciting. There was something lumpen about it. It was bloke’s music.

AD: One of the words repeated a lot when people talk about Wire is “anxiety.” That you made jittery, anxious music. Were you an anxious young person yourself?

Colin Newman: Not particularly. I liked the idea of a certain kind of spikiness, which came from taking a little bit of perverse delight in making people feel not at ease. [Laughs] Wire, we’ve never done “entertainment.” Nowadays, and for really quite a long time, we have people who love us and they come and see us and they love the songs. But it wasn’t like that when we started. When we started, they hated us a bit and we kind of reveled in it. It was ultimately about art, not entertainment. You could have a long discussion about where the line between art and entertainment may be drawn, but fundamentally, Wire came down strongly from an art background.

AD:  People may have hated it at first, but soon enough, bands like Sonic Youth, the Feelies, R.E.M., the Minutemen, and Guided By Voices began vocally citing Wire as an influence. Were you aware of your influence as they were coming up?

Colin Newman: Well, that was not the first generation of bands to be influenced by Wire. You go back to the late ’70s…Cabaret Voltaire, and a whole bunch of people, some of whom admitted it, some who didn’t, who were influenced by Wire. Joy Division was influenced by Wire.

AD: I did the very American thing and just cited a bunch of American bands. [Laughs]

Colin Newman: My theory about this is, because Pink Flag was the only ’70s Wire record to have a serious domestic release on Capitol, it got everywhere. They didn’t know how to promote it, but at least they got it in the shops. A bunch of people got to hear it. A lot of British albums at that time didn’t get that distribution. I think there was a lot of cynicism about punk in America, especially about the Sex Pistols. American tended to see it as form over content, whereas Pink Flag, I think, had a more interesting effect. There were people who criticized us for not being able to play, or said our songs were not proper songs, just one chord and shouting. Yeah, that’s true, so what?

AD: [Laughs]

Colin Newman: But for another generation that was a really interesting thing. When we first went to America in ’78, I had a very strong feeling [about the American template for success]:   you’d have your set together, which acknowledged all the masters of your genre. You’d play on the road for three or four years and hone your chops, then be allowed to make your first album.

Wire, I think offered a different direction. You could just get in a room with some loud noise and shouting and some fairly minimalist ability and that could do. You didn’t have to do all that other rubbish. That really got taken up by the hardcore generation. I don’t know quite how that worked, but there were people in California and Boston and DC, who got that.

There were enough of them that it started to cross over. By 1986, when we were coming around for the second phase, the college culture of music in America, they knew Wire, but they knew Wire basically from those other bands, especially R.E.M. You had all that happening in the ’80s, and then [again] in the ’90s [through] Britpop, and then the post-punk revival at the end of the naughties, and during the naughties, there were all these bands who considered themselves influenced by the Wire thing, Franz Ferdinand and whatever. It just seems to go on. People claim to be influenced and I can’t hear it, but sometimes they just mean the attitude. If we kind of persuaded people that it doesn’t just have to be entertainment, that’s kind of a good start. words/j woodbury

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